Acquiescing to efforts to end government funding of the International Space Station (ISS) by 2025 would be a historic and costly mistake to the tune of billions, destroying an engineering, science and geopolitical marvel and elevating America’s enemies to supremacy in space.
Construction of the ISS was completed from 1998 through 2011, and it remains the largest structure that humans have placed into space. Since Nov. 2, 2000, the station has been continuously occupied by astronauts dedicated to scientific advancement.
Released in February, the Trump administration’s 2019 budget proposal for NASA seeks to cease government funding of the ISS, instead doling out millions for station privatization and the exploration of the moon.
However, while privatization of the ISS coincides with the ethos of free markets, it is exceedingly unlikely that private companies could generate a viable business model for the space station absent government funding.
NASA Inspector General Paul Martin seems to agree with this assessment. At a hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness on May 16, Mr. Martin stated, “We question whether a sufficient business case exists under which private companies can create a self-sustaining and profit-making business using the ISS independent of significant government funding.”
Mr. Martin went on to divulge that private companies had shown “scant commercial interest” over the approximately 20 years the space station has been operational, calling the space agency’s current plans to defund the ISS to question.
“Any assumption that ending direct federal funding frees up $3—4 billion beginning in 2025 to use on other NASA exploration initiatives is wishful thinking,” Mr. Martin continued, debunking the theory of massive savings behind the proposed budget cuts, which would abandon the station’s benefits to other nations.
Perhaps even more important than budgetary considerations when considering the fate of the ISS is the structure’s contribution to international relations.
As of January 2018, 230 individuals from 18 countries have visited the ISS, hailing from organizations including NASA, Roscosmos, the European Space Agency, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency. Astronauts aboard the station are assisted by mission control centers across the planet.
Collaborating with other nations on such an ambitious project only serves to deepen the ties of peace across the world, and strengthening the bonds between the U.S. and traditional rivals, like Russia, and dismantling the ISS would only serve to give geopolitical rivals an advantage in the coming age of space.
“Prematurely canceling a program for political reasons costs jobs and wastes billions of dollars,” Senate space subcommittee Chairman Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, proclaimed at the May hearing, warning about the dangers of giving space over to international bad actors.
“We cannot afford to continue to pursue policies that have consequences of creating gaps in capability, that send $3 1/2 billion in taxpayer money to the Russian government, or that create a leadership vacuum in low-earth orbit that provides a window of opportunity for the Chinese to capitalize on it,” Sen. Cruz concluded.
New NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine, was quoted in The Washington Post saying, “we’re in the position now where there are people out there that can do commercial management of the International Space Station and run it as a commercial space lab.” The problem with this is, as Mr. Cruz points out, this would create “gaps in capability” and would prematurely cancel a program that is working.
Scheduling an end to federal government funding of the ISS in anticipation of private companies taking over this program would ignore the national security and research implications of such a decision.
The plan seems shortsighted, because there is no plan in place for a private entity to take over the management for the U.S. of the ISS. The Post reported that “it was unclear, who, if anyone, would want to take over operations of the station, which costs NASA about $3 billion to $4 billion a year and is run by an international partnership that includes the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency.” The White House has provided few details on how this would work, because they don’t know.
Rather than tying the demise of the ISS to a specific date, the station’s decommissioning should be anchored by specific criteria to ensure a successful commercial transition, namely an established cadence of launches and the establishment of a U.S.-led international coalition for exploring cis-lunar space.
As NASA embarks on the goal of sending humans into deep space, commercial ventures will move to fill the gap of provided low Earth orbit launch capabilities. Until this transition takes place, the ISS should stay in space.
• Mitchell Gunter is a Washington writer.